Reinventing Historical Propaganda Through Memes

Jan 14, 2016 by

 

Providing hands-on challenges and tasks in History classes can be difficult; sure, economic simulations, debates,  and reenactments of significant events can all “juice” up a lesson or unit, but as a Social Studies minor, I encountered a lot more discussion and lecture-based History courses that I’d like to admit. So in the vein of my Hunting Trolls in History assignment that I created longer ago than I realized, I decided to “one up” today’s ds106 Daily Create, and craft a quick activity that any History teacher could use with students.

I’ve always been fascinated with historical propaganda; in a way, they represent the cultural “memes” of the pre-digital era; often imagery created to convey certain political stances was crude, the humor dark, and production value low, the same qualities that describe your typical “ain’t no one got time for that” memes. I found the image below to be a rather horrific joke made by the anti-suffragette movement here in the United States before women were granted the right to vote.

Anti-suffragette propaganda poster from Catherine H. Palczewski's and June Purvis' collection. (http://www.ufunk.net/en/insolite/contre-le-vote-des-femmes/)

Anti-suffragette propaganda poster from Catherine H. Palczewski’s and June Purvis’ collection. (http://www.ufunk.net/en/insolite/contre-le-vote-des-femmes/)

There is imagery to combat this viewpoint, including a number of more humorous posters in which men were forced to do what was considered at the time to be “women’s work” that honestly could have gone in either direction of the debate. But rather than dwell too much on past imagery, I thought it would be fun to take an image from the past, in this case a female “cowgirl” (the current version of ds106 is Western themed), and create a modern propaganda piece (meme). I would love to imagine it could be spirited away to 1915 to fly in the face of naysayers who insisted that women couldn’t handle the responsibilities that men upheld. I figured being thrown head over heels by a seasoned bronco would be more than enough for any woman to prove they could handle something like voting, and be that much tougher for standing up to the establishment to make it happen.

women tougher than men meme

You can find the original photo of actual cowgirl Bonnie McCarroll here (http://www.cowboyway.com/CowgirlPictures02.htm). Yes, she survived this throw, and was made famous thanks to this photo.

Alright, so it might not be laugh out loud hilarious, or even perfectly suited towards the suffragette movement. But that’s the fun of creating an activity like this for your students. You create the prototype, and then let the learners riff on the idea, taking it to new and better places. There’s a treasure trove of historical imagery out on the web that would be perfect for this! The Library of Congress has an excellent Flickr feed of photos, the Rare Historical Photos blog hosts many pictures and includes the story behind them, and Wikipedia lists dozens of websites that host public domain historical images.

The creation of this prototype embodies the entire activity, which can be used as a simple exit ticket, a check for understanding, or an engaging piece of media for a larger project. I’ve always held fast to the notion that if students know how to correctly satirize a thought or apply modern thought to historical events that demonstrates accurate connections between ideas, then they probably understand what you’re trying to teach them. Here’s my five minute list of steps for creating the piece you see above:

  • Have the students identify a central theme or contested political point surrounding the era or event you’re studying.
  • Locate a historical image from one of the above linked websites (or go out and discovery your own).
  • Craft a witty, perhaps snarky, comment that echoes one side of the issue or event being studied.
  • Create another piece for the other side of the issue or event to see if they understand more than one view of the event.
  • Create your meme! There are plenty of ways to do it for free, but here are three of my go to sites:
    • upload image to Meme Generator and create your meme
    • use the tools at Meme.com to make your meme
    • grab a free account at Canva to create your memes

Mischief managed! I’d love to know if this resonates with any History teachers, and better yet what I could do to tweak the activity to make it fit more in line with providing a counterpoint to historical narratives. Sometimes I wish I had a nice evening community college History class to teach, just so I could bounce more hair-brained ideas like this off of my students, and challenge them to one-up me.

3 Comments

  1. I love this! I am a Social Science’s Education major currently. I think incorporating things students already understand (like internet memes) is a invaluable way to increase student interest and learning.

    What about taking it a step farther and having some way of sharing the memes with the whole class (or students in other classes). To keep it simple, you could use a Google folder that all the memes would be shared in. Or a classroom website would work. Students could go through on their own and enjoy their peers’ work, and joke together without necessarily realizing that the more they understand the meme, the more knowledgeable they have become.

    The memes could also be good attention grabbers at the beginning of class. Pull one up on a screen as students meander into the classroom, and without realizing it, they’re focusing their brains on the subject. And the fact that it would be student work up on the screen instead of some general Google image is even better.

    • Exactly, Jenna! You need to connect what the students are learning about to something they understand; it helps with more conceptual and open-ended learning objectives. There are dozens of ways to share these out, including a Google Drive or Classroom. I had a Spanish teacher create a shared blog in which the students all posted images and quotes each week, and that worked well too. I have one teacher that prints them out and covers the walls with them…which makes for fun distractions during class when a bit of levity is needed.

  2. Connie

    I didn’t even know what a meme was a few months ago! I saw them, posted all over social media, but never knew what they were called. Sad, I know. However, in November I attended a GAFE Summit in Solano County, CA, and one of the workshops I attended taught us how to make memes. I fell in love with the process! I currently teach 6th grade history (Ancient Civilizations), and this was something I could take back to my classroom the following Monday and teach my students. At the time we were studying Ancient Egypt. I got amazing results! This approach to assessing my students not only let me check for understanding, but also advanced their technological skills. In addition, creating the memes helped my kiddos make connections to the content. But, the most unexpected outcome was seeing how funny my little 11 year olds are! When I can combine student engagement, learning, and technology in the classroom, it’s a win win win situation! By the way, we created our memes using Google Slides. They were then saved on the students’ drive and could be presented to the rest of the class. Love it!

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